How to Restore Headlights? I'm Getting Orange Peel!




I've been restoring headlights as a side job for 2-3 months. My method consists of the typical wet sanding using various grits, compounding, polishing, and finishing off with a sealant. However, because I see business potential in this line of work, I decided to start restoring headlights the professional way with clear coat. I plan on being a mobile service. So I went out bought:

8 Gallon 2HP 5.5CFM Harbor Freight Air Compressor
HVLP Purple Harbor Freight Gun (Requires 6CFM)
Production Clear and Slow Activator (SPI products of course)

As far as air regulation, I'm completely opening the air valve at the air compressor and chocking it at the gun with an air regulator at 28-30psi.

I did my research and I'm basically doing the restoration how most people recommend. First, I dry sand with 800 DA paper to remove ALL the factory clear coat. Then, I wet sand with 800 paper to refine and smooth out the surface. Second, I prep the headlights with a wax and grease remover. I mix the production clear with the slow activator 4:1 and strain the paint into the paint cup and get to spraying!

When I get to spraying, I notice immediately that my coats aren't laying right. I get this massive orange peel and small bubbles. However, I did increase the fluid flow a bit and that seemed to help as the clear layed out more flat but still not enough to sell as a service.

I was reading somewhere and they insisted adding thinner would help. Is this true?
Is my air compressor the culprit by being off 0.5CFM even though I'm spraying a really small area?

There's just too many variables were I could be going wrong. I know off two guys in my city that perform this service easily. How are they pulling it off?

Any advice would be helpful!
FYI headlights don't have clearcoat on them from the factory. Clearing them isn't neccesarily any better than a good sand and buff. It just depends on the H/L's condition IMO. Most of them are Lexan which yellows (on the surface) with age and UV exposure.. The first problem is the Air Compressor. It doesn't put out anywhere near the CFM you need to spray.
Second would be the gun. Get something professional. That gun at best is only good for spraying primer. If it's only using 6CFM it's way too small anyway.
Your procedures aren't too far off, I'd recommend wet sanding with 400 grit to remove the bulk then 600 grit wet, then W&G remover then spray it.

But you need a bigger compressor and then get a decent gun. Search the forums as there is a thread covering various options for a value gun that will work.
actually... this works GREAT when done right and lasts a LOT longer than sanding and buffing... I usually go to 600 grit (that's after all the yelllowed, oxidized, porous crap is gone)... with the cheap gun your using, it should be easy with almost any air compressor (based on my experience). I usually use the euro clear reduced with whatever reducer fits the temperature (warm here usually so slow) and always add just a little of the very slow reducer (like maybe 10%) and lay it on in several medium wet coats. The extra slow reducer helps it flow out (thanks Barry and others for all the great advice posted on here and provided directly to my questions when I started playing with this stuff!)
Factory headlamps don't have clear coat in the conventional sense, but they do have a scratch and UV-resistant coating that MUST be removed before our conventional clear coats are applied, or maximum adhesion and clarity will not be achieved. A starting grit of 800 may not be adequate to remove that (rather tough) coating, believe it or not.

As far as the orange peel problem, it's because the air supply and spray equipment are inferior. Maybe a proper mini-gun like a Sata Mini-Jet would make better use of limited air flow, but I don't know for sure. It's unlikely the HF Purple gun will ever give a good result, but if you want to keep trying, start by cranking up the pressure.
btw. typically I wind up doing this on headlights that are pretty hazy. I've yet to do a set that I didn't need to wet sand with 320 to get all the oxidation and discoloring removed... and I usually use and have had very good results with dirt cheap (ie throwaway) guns just like the one the op is using...
I understand these pros telling you to go get a "real gun" and a big a$$ compressor. They are used to spraying with Cadillac guns, unlimited air, and near surgically clean booths. Having $10,000 in guns and air must be fantastic. But I can't afford that. Fact is you can get just as nice of a finish on small parts with a HF gun and small compressor if you know what you are doing. Cheap guns are harder to setup, they are not as forgiving, nor as ergonomic, and they do not last like a high $$$ gun will. But they can get the job done.

Try getting one of the HF mini guns. I like the one that comes as a set, full sized and mini with a 1.0 tip for like $30. The mini guns require less air and therefore work better with a small compressor. They also have a narrower fan and put out less product which makes them a good fit for small parts. Go to YouTube and watch some videos and learn how to setup your gun. Set the regulator at the tank to around 50PSI and fine tune at the gun. Use no more than 50' of 3/8" hose.

You should be able to get a perfect finish on small parts with some practice.

Pic attached was done with the HF mini gun and a little pancake compressor. Helmet was on a stake in my back yard on a calm day in the sun. No cut and buff.


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Beobob, If you are trying to do this as a business (which the OP stated) then it makes sense to have professional equipment. If you want to be a painter you're not going to get far using HF junk. CFM is CFM and he needs more to spray clear. Getting a decent gun and compressor is the first step to be able to do this professionally. $800-1000 for a decent 5 HP compressor and $250-300 for a decent gun is not that much. What's cheaper? Buying 5 or 6 crap guns, 2 or 3 crappy compressors before you finally realize that you need quality equipment to do professional work? Or buying something decent once?
I got a Sata 2000RP back in 2003, I used it daily for almost eleven years, rebuilt it once and probably sprayed 2000-2500 jobs with it before I finally retired it. It cost me $575 new in 2003 and was worth every penny.
I agree on that Chris. If you want to go full pro you will need the right tools. I am slowly building my arsenal, but as a hobby it's expensive.

My point is you can do headlights with much less. If that's all he's going to do then a small oilless compressor and the HF mini is all he needs to get started.
Chris, go get a Finex 2000 mini gun $120 on ebay, more at the supply store (bought a 3000 the other day at the pawn shop for 30 bucks!). For small jobs it's been a pleasure for me to use. On head/taillights I also start with 320 grit and water, finer grit will work you to death, even use the DA on some. I don't clear them but I have considered it because the polish job only lasts about 6 months. But I have reservations about clear. How long does it last? Seems like a one shot deal too, as when the clear yellows I doubt you could feasibly strip and re finish. Thoughts?
Sanding a second time with 600 is a waste of time, clear will easily fill scratches way
more coarse than the 400.
Lay the first coat of clear slick and wet, gun needs to be 5-6 inch from head light.
Reducer can be used but only needed if gun adjustment problems.